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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

May 12, 1995

Air Date: May 12, 1995


Endangered Species Policy: An Act in Crisis / Jennifer Schmidt

Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports on the Congressional push to rewrite the Endangered Species Act. A series of public hearings on the act highlight what some say is bias towards industry in Republican proposals for changes in the law. (06:52)

Noah's Choice: Important Decisions Ahead

Host Steve Curwood interviews Charles Mann, co-author of the recent book Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species. Mann discusses how the current law heightens conflict between species protection and ordinary human activities. Mann suggests some difficult choices lie ahead, including the loss of some species. (06:09)

Work and Taxes: It's an Animal's Life! / Whit Gibbons

Commentator Whit Gibbons wonders whether humans aren't just one of many species who want to continue to do their jobs without disruption. (02:38)

LOE Profile Series #3: John and Nancy Todd / Dan Grossman

Inventors John and Nancy Todd have devoted much of their lives to designing and implementing, waste water treatment facilities. Their innovative systems use nature's filters to do the job. Dan Grossman explains in this latest profile. (05:18)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Robin Finesmith, Francisco Contreras, Jennifer Schmidt, Dan Grossman
GUEST: Charles Mann
Commentator: Whitt Gibbons

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

What can we afford to spend to protect ecosystems? That's at the heart of the debate in the US Congress over the Endangered Species Act.

KUBIN: Our government has become too large to set proper priorities when it can spend literally millions of dollars reintroducing the gray wolf into Yellowstone and parts of Idaho, when there are over 60,000 gray wolves existing on the North American continent.

CURWOOD: Some say protecting jobs is more important than protecting endangered plants and animals. But others say that view is short-sighted and unfair.

GIBBON: Human jobs are important. But so are the jobs of wildlife. And we put other species out of work, some permanently, far more often than we do people.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, coming up right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. Environmental destruction played a crucial role in the spread of a deadly virus that has killed dozens of people in Zaire. Dr. Paul Epstein of the Harvard School of Public Health says the destruction of rainforest probably unleashed the deadly ebola virus.

EPSTEIN: We have to protect the forests, not just because they're sinks for the carbon or produce oxygen, but also because disturbing this can release the carriers of disease.

NUNLEY: Zaire's extreme poverty was another factor, according to another infectious disease specialist, Yale's Dr. Robert Ryder. He said the area's hospital couldn't provide the most rudimentary sterilization procedures. Although extremely deadly, the ebola virus can only be transmitted through contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated medical equipment.

A new report on wetlands protection says radical changes to the Clean Water Act are based in bad science, and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is using it to defend wetlands protections while on a tour of the Great Lakes. From Living on Earth's Midwest Bureau, Robin Finesmith reports.

FINESMITH: The bill before Congress would greatly reduce regulation of the nation's wetlands, requiring areas to meet a strict set of criteria in order to be eligible for Federal protection. The report by the National Academy of Sciences says those criteria have no basis in science, but that may have little effect on pending legislation. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has sharp words for lawmakers who already made up their minds.

BABBITT: The leadership of the House, by rushing this bill through the committees and across the floor, I think is once again demonstrating its contempt for science, scientific research, and measured solutions. It's a blatantly political bill. It is, frankly, a payoff to the real estate developers and the oil industry.

FINESMITH: The Academy is also skeptical of the bill's attempt to rank wetlands in order of their ecological importance. Other provisions of the revised Clean Water Act would make compliance with many current laws voluntary instead, allowing industries to shop around for communities with the most lenient regulations, which Babbitt said could reverse decades of environmental progress. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin Finesmith in Cleveland.

NUNLEY: Environmental programs face heavy budget cuts in proposals passed by the House and Senate budget committees. Funding for the cleanup of nuclear weapons sites, the National Biological Survey, and wastewater treatment may be hit hard. Both proposals would cut total funding for natural resources and environmental programs by 15% by the year 2002. Republicans hope to retire the national debt in the next 7 years through similar cuts.

The Senate's Environment Committee has given the green light to a bill abolishing the 55 mile an hour speed limit. The committee chair, Senator John Chaffee of Rhode Island, says he's concerned about the bill's effects on air quality standards and fuel conservation. An EPA official said raising speed limits would increase fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, but Senate supporters, including Lawtch Faircloth of North Carolina and Don Nickles of Oklahoma, say states should be able to set their own speed limits without fear of Federal economic sanctions. The bill is pending before the Senate and similar legislation is winding its way through the House.

Tensions are rising between Texans and Mexicans as a severe drought on the Rio Grande enters its 4th year. Francisco Contreras of Latino USA reports from Austin.

CONTRERAS: The hot desert sun is relentless in northern Mexico, even when the area gets its regular amount of rain. But weather forecasters say the area has received half the amount it needs this year. That combination is scorching the border region. Mexican farm animals are dying as rivers dry up. Desert grasses no longer grow, and some Mexican farmers have been illegally tapping into water that belongs to farmers in Texas. Texas officials say this violates a water treaty between the United States and Mexico. Under the treaty, Mexico could officially request US water, and they're expected to take that request to the State Department. Officials say Mexico has used all but six and a half percent of its water allotments from 2 crucial shared reservoirs, and the state of Texas is expected to drain down to one half its allotments by July. Texas Governor George W. Bush says the drought could cost state farmers $1.5 billion, and the governor says Texas will not support a water loan to Mexico. For Living on Earth, I'm Francisco Contreras in Texas.

NUNLEY: Swallows aren't the only thing coming to San Juan Capistrano. The town is located in the now bankrupt Orange County, whose hopes for returning to fiscal stability are built in part on trash. The county hopes to earn tens of millions of dollars a year by importing as much as 6,000 tons of garbage every day to 2 landfills, one of them in San Juan Capistrano. But residents of the quiet bedroom community fear that if the volume of trash quadruples as planned, garbage trucks will rumble through town every few minutes. Ironically, theirs was one of only 2 local towns which kept their money out of Orange County's investment fiasco.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Endangered Species Policy: An Act in Crisis

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The long-awaited showdown over the Endangered Species Act has finally begun in the US Congress, amid charges that the legislative process is being unfairly manipulated. The conservative Republican leadership of the House has set up a special Endangered Species Task Force that bypasses the House Wildlife Subcommittee Chair, New Jersey Republican James Saxton. He opposed gutting the Endangered Species Act in a procedural vote in March. The man now in charge of House hearings on Endangered Species is California Republican Richard Tombeau a harsh critic of the act. Representative Tombeau says he is holding hearings around the country to involve more citizens, but critics say the hearings are stacked to favor opponents. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU in Seattle has the story.

(A gavel strikes; a Tombeau speaks: "This hearing of the Endangered Species Act Task Force will come to order. I want to welcome all of you today to this hearing...")

SCHMIDT: This recent field hearing in Vancouver, Washington, was one of 7 held around the nation. The highly-charged atmosphere had loggers and Earth First members jockeying for seats in a jammed hotel ballroom in this small city in the southwestern corner of the state. California rancher turned Republican Representative Richard Tombeau chairs the special task force. He explained to the crowd that the panel chose to hold hearings in places like Vancouver; Bernie, Texas; and Belle Chase, Louisiana, because they wanted to hear from ordinary citizens.

TOMBEAU: Our goal in picking the locations of these field hearings is to take this task force to the people most affected by the Endangered Species Act. That means that we have taken these hearings to areas where there are significant numbers of listed species, and where the local people have had first-hand experiences in dealing with this Act and its workings.

SCHMIDT: These are also places where opposition to the act runs high. While those who spoke at the Vancouver hearing came from a wide range of professions: rancher, farmer, aluminum worker, most of them made the same point. That the Endangered Species Act needs a major overhaul. They're particularly angry at what they say is the current law's lack of concern for the effect of endangered species listings on local residents and economies. Opposition to the act is shared by the majority of representatives on the Republican-dominated task force: members like Barbara Kubin, a freshman representative from Wyoming.

KUBIN: Our government has become too large to set proper priorities when it can spend literally millions of dollars reintroducing the gray wolf into Yellowstone and parts of Idaho, when there are over 60,000 gray wolves existing on the North American continent. If someone draws an imaginary line around an area and a species does not exist there, and yet there are 60,000 on the continent, does that constitute that species being endangered? We have to answer that question.

SCHMIDT: But comments like this have led some task force members to the conclusion that the panel and the hearings are stacked against a strong Endangered Species Act. Most of the panel's Democrats avoided the field hearings; none were in Vancouver. Maryland Republican Wayne Gilcrest has also stayed away, calling the process unprofessional. He says there's a lot of misinformation going around, and emphasizes that many of his colleagues need an education about the long-term importance of intact ecosystems.

GILCREST: When I talk about the Endangered Species Act, I don't think just about a bald eagle or a spotted owl, but I think in terms of biological diversity. You need to have citizen input, but you also need, in my judgment, to have some scientists to give us some sense of what keeps this living planet alive, from rare species that provide enzymes to deal with leukemia, to the value of diversity to the region for economic purposes.

SCHMIDT: Environmentalists say they would have made some of these points at the hearings if only they were given the chance. But they complain that they've been all but shut out of the process. At the Vancouver hearing, only a handful of supporters of the Endangered Species Act were allowed to testify. Oregon resident Michael Garvin was one of two dozen environmental protesters who walked out of the proceedings.

GARVIN: We just felt like we were being gagged. We weren't being heard. The people that asked to testify at this hearing, like myself, just were ignored.

SCHMIDT: But Oregon's newly-elected Republican Representative Wes Cooley says he's been ignoring some members of environmental organizations on purpose.

COOLEY: I think we should a lot of times limit the big environmental groups. Because they have a lot of money and they're in Washington all the time. I come to these hearings because I want to hear from farmer Smith and from fisherman Jones, and everybody else of how this law has actually affected their everyday lives and their communities.

SCHMIDT: While Cooley says the House panel wants to hear from the little guys, it's big industry that's been having a say in the Senate. Washington Senator Slade Gorton is sponsoring a new Endangered Species bill, written by lobbyists for the mining, ranching, and timber industries. Gorton has admitted he allowed others to craft the bill, but says they were following his lead, not the other way around. Gorton's bill is expected to set the terms of the Endangered Species debate in the Senate, and it echoes the concerns expressed at the House field hearings. Senator Gorton says his bill would allow rare species to die out if protecting the species might put some people out of work.

GORTON: The decision as to whether or not people's lives ought to be changed or whether they should lose their jobs and their communities is of course a human decision, and it should be made as a matter of public policy. Scientists have no particular competence to make that kind of, come up with those answers. They should recommend what's necessary for the species, but people should decide what's right for people.

SCHMIDT: Gorton's bill faces uncertain prospects in a Senate where a strong Endangered Species Act has powerful friends, even among the Republican majority. But those eager to rewrite the Act may hold a trump card. Senator Gorton chairs an important appropriations subcommittee, and he warns that he and his allies could try to deny funding for any endangered species law they don't like.

GORTON: Neither I nor my House counterpart have any great enthusiasm for funding the present Act if its opponents refuse to allow changes to be considered.

SCHMIDT: The Senate is expected to begin hearings on the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act at the end of May. Meanwhile, House members say they hope to have a bill to rewrite the law ready for action on the House floor by summer. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.

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(Music up and under)

Noah's Choice: Important Decisions Ahead

CURWOOD: The story of Noah's Ark tells how 2 of every animal on Earth was saved from the ravages of God's Great Flood by the ingenuity of one man. Today, as human activities cause another great wave of extinction, the Endangered Species debate reflects the decisions that a democratic society must make about what we will save. Writer Charles Mann and economist Mark Plummer address this dilemma in Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species. Mr. Mann says the current law is an idealized fiction which ought to be tempered with some hard realities.

MANN: Right now, we are in the position where under the law, we are saying, essentially, we are pretending that we are going to save everything. And yet if you talk to scientists, biologists, ecologists, and conservationists, nobody believes that we can actually do that. To begin with, we don't know how many things are out there, so if we save something we don't know what we're missing. So the task is actually, in a sort of a practical level, impossible. But also given the burden of the growing human population, we also think that there's just going to be not enough room for everything.

CURWOOD: In your book you talk about a number of communities that clash with and over endangered species. Can you give us an example of these conflicts?

MANN: Well, there's many of them. In eastern Oklahoma we talk about the Choctaw Nation Indian Hospital, which wanted to have an access road built to it, essentially. And that went through some beetle habitat. In upper New York, near Albany, we talk about a group of communities that wanted to spray their areas for mosquitoes and couldn't do it for a variety of reasons to protect a butterfly. What the problem is, is that the law pretends that the reasons that we endanger species are trivial, and that's just simply not the case. We endanger species for very human reasons: we want a nice place to live, we want to be able to go to the hospital, we want to be able to have an outdoor barbecue. These are not bad things. But they have an impact on biodiversity. And when people are suddenly slammed down and told they can't do those things, they say hey, I'm not a bad guy. And it suddenly transforms these people, who would otherwise either love the nature that's around them or not care about it one way or the other, into the enemies of the species that we're supposedly protecting.

CURWOOD: So what do you do in that New York community? How do you keep the butterflies and yet spray for black flies?

MANN: Well, what happened there is that the butterflies had to be protected when they were in vacant lots that happened to be in recent subdivisions. What we would argue is that perhaps what we should do is simply write off the butterfly in those tiny, isolated spots, and concentrate our money, our efforts in the big pine-bearing preserve that is just there outside Albany, working to expand that and manage that. And we should also consider that the biggest areas for the carner blue are in fact Western New York, where the land is cheap, they're in private hands, and maybe we should say, hey, let's buy up those first rather than taking the fast-growing area around Albany and deciding to make a stand there.

CURWOOD: Okay, so what do you want, then? What kind of mechanism do you think would work instead of the present Endangered Species Act?

MANN: Essentially, what we suggest is something like this: we propose a swap. On the one hand, you scale back the Endangered Species Act. You restrict its protections. You might say that not all habitat everywhere - there's a whole bunch of ways you could scale it back. On the other hand, you make up for it by creating a big pot of money and have advisory boards that are biologists and ecologists and, you know, local governments and all these sort of interested stakeholders, and say look, we've got a big pot of money; how can we best use this to preserve the biodiversity that we in America all want to preserve? And they could use this money in many, many ways. We personally believe that one of the best ways that they could use it would be a strong public education campaign, and with this they could encourage local communities to save as much of their own land as possible. In other cases they could back up programs like that from the Defenders of Wildlife, which pays people in the upper Midwest $5,000 for every wolf den that they have on their property. It could also arrange for conservation easements in much the same way that the Nature Conservancy now does. In other cases, when the land is particularly crucial, we can simply ask people if they'll be willing to buy it, you know, for the market rate.

CURWOOD: A key to doing this, you say, is money: creating trust funds to spread to burden of the Endangered Species Act. But you also complain in your book that we haven't spent much money to implement the Endangered Species Act as it is today.

MANN: Absolutely.

CURWOOD: That the Interior Department is just woefully under-funded. If we're not willing to pay for the present law, why would the public be willing to pay more in the future in this area?

MANN: This is a really good question, because it ultimately addresses the question of public values. Right now, we have a law that sort of sweeps the costs under the table by dropping them on individual, private landowners who are unlucky.

CURWOOD: But we're not appropriating for the Interior Department, either; now that's an explicit cost that people aren't willing to pay.

MANN: Right. Right. The Endangered Species Act as now constituted is attracting major opposition, and right now, for example, the law is enforced essentially randomly. The system is driven by lawsuits. But if we had a trust in a central coordinating committee, we could say gee, what is ecologically the best thing to do? We could say what's going to cost us the most money, what's going to give us the most preservation for our dollars? I think the big sign of hope that we saw is there is a broad reservoir of good will in Americans for this issue. At the same time there is a deep reluctance to be told what to do and told that they are bad. And our hope is that the reservoir of good will can be tapped without hitting the other.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much. Charles Mann is author of Noah's Choice: The Future of Endangered Species, along with Mark Plummer. Thanks for coming in.

MANN: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

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Work and Taxes: It's an Animal's Life!

CURWOOD: Many people look at the question of protecting endangered species as a matter of balancing taxes and jobs against environmental concerns. But commentator Whitt Gibbons says some jobs and taxes are missing from that equation.

GIBBONS: Political rhetoric includes frequent references to finding jobs and paying taxes. Politicians are referring to humans, of course, but are jobs and taxes part of the natural world? Do wild animals have jobs and pay taxes?

Raccoons spend part of each day looking for food. That's a raccoon's job. Beavers work at cutting down trees, to repair dams and build lodges. Social insects like ants and bees are the paragon of an organized labor union, but without strikes or contract negotiations. They carry out daily job duties: defending the colony, bringing food to the nest, serving as nursemaids to the queen. Yes, all wild animals have jobs.

One reason to have a job is to acquire necessities: food and shelter. Health care, defense, and transportation are also lifetime requirements, for humans as well as wild animals. If a business shuts down or reduces production, human jobs are lost. The same is true for wild animals. The endangered wood stork's job is to find fish and tadpoles in shallow wetlands. Destroying wetlands abolishes wood stork business sites, eliminating wood stork jobs.

The unemployment problem we create for wood storks is one example of the economic toll we take on wildlife. Thousands of wetland species have their work places eliminated each year, as do species living in forests, deserts, and oceans.

Do animals pay taxes? Absolutely. Humans place a heavy tax burden on animals. We eat them, wear them, make medicines out of them. As we over-tax our native wildlife, the national wildlife deficit increases. Human jobs are important, but so are the jobs of wildlife, and we put other species out of work, some permanently, far more often than we do people. Natural systems provide services essential to our own existence. Let's not put them out of the business.

CURWOOD: Whitt Gibbons is an ecologist at the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. He comes to us from member station WUGA in Athens, Georgia.

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CURWOOD: How do you think we should balance the needs of humans and wild animals and plants? Give us a call on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. Or you can write to us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Our Internet address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

LOE Profile Series #3: John and Nancy Todd

CURWOOD: Sewage is hardly the stuff of revolutions, but don't tell that to John and Nancy Todd. For decades, they've looked for ways to use natural processes to transform waste into resource. As founders of the nonprofit New Alchemy Institute, and later the for-profit Ocean Arks International, the Todds have pioneered the field of ecological engineering. They've demonstrated that plants and microbes can handle sewage better and cheaper than industrial facilities, while producing food for other plants, animals, and even people. Dan Grossman visited the Todds as part of our continuing series on 25 intriguing people involved with environmental change.

(Objects being moved, scraped, spilled.)

J. TODD: What you're seeing is the very top part, and on the top is the plants, the trees, and that's the nursery part.

GROSSMAN: The word most often used to describe John and Nancy Todd is "visionary." And when I meet them at a new pilot plant for purifying San Francisco sewage, I can see why. A small forest of potted saplings covers the top. The tree's roots are bathed in the nutrient-rich waters circulating in plastic tanks. John Todd says just as important is what's hidden below.

J. TODD: Underneath those trees is the aquatic communities: the fresh water clams, the snails, the snail population...

GROSSMAN: After treatment, the water is crystal clear. Even stubborn chemical wastes, he says, are conquered by this biological onslaught.

J. TODD: Any pollutants, industrial solvents, things like that, are immediately entrapped in these complex ecologies where the combination of bacteria and algae break them down and render them harmless.

GROSSMAN: John Todd is a biologist, and Nancy is a writer and publisher. Together, they have spent the better part of their lives designing systems like these that rely on the natural abilities of living organisms to treat toxic and municipal waste. And on a visit to Ocean Arks International, the Todds' headquarters on Cape Cod, I learned these living machines do much more than just treat waste. They also produce food.

(Running water)

J. TODD: We are growing one fish per gallon in this water. We use horticulture to purify the water. When I got started, I was a doom watch biologist; I was studying the effects of industrial chemicals, and everywhere I looked I saw the world being unraveled. And then I got concerned with what systems are robust, what systems are frail, what's the difference between them. Asked the question, could doom watch knowledge be applied to creating systems that don't automatically destroy?

N. TODD: We turned to water because we basically, as we came to realize that it was unsafe to drink the water here on the Cape and in many other places, that that was saying something's profoundly wrong about the way we were managing as a culture.

J. TODD: Simply taken, water is the most important element. Where it doesn't exist, there really is no life.

N. TODD: And if you've ever noticed people around water, they're happier.

J. TODD: I have been searching for the instructions in nature. How does a pond or lake organize itself? And slowly, have begun to develop a series of technologies, living technologies, which really are reflections of how nature works, and what separates living machines from dead machines is that their parts are alive.

N. TODD: I'm very hopeful about the possibilities, if you like, for ecological design. I really do feel at this point in time that the obstacles are social, political, economic. The design principles and the ecological technologies are ready to go.

J. TODD: For example, we can grow foods. We can treat wastes, even some of the most toxic wastes on the face of the planet, we've done that.

N. TODD: We don't have to live in a time where things are slowly unraveling. We can live in a time that's very healing, both for the human population and also for the ecosystems in which we all live.

GROSSMAN: The Todds have already installed sewage treatment plants, like the one in San Francisco, in several communities. And the Body Shop cosmetics company uses one at its Canadian factory. John and Nancy Todd predict that by the 21st century, ecological engineering will be used widely to build sustainable communities. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.

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CURWOOD: Living on Earth coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our staff includes Peter Thomson, Deborah Stavro, Kim Motylewski, Constantine Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, and Julia Madeson. We had help from Heather Corson and David Dunlap. Our WBUR engineers are Dan Donovan and Mark Navin. Special thanks to Larry Bouthillier. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the Joyce Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation; and the National Science Foundation for reporting on science and the environment.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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